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Can entrepreneurship be taught?

Australians are eager and early adopters of new technologies. We love our smartphones, flat screen TVs, social media apps, Airbnb and Uber. Does it matter if we are not known around the world for developing our own innovations?

There’s been a traditional economic point of view that improving productivity with rapid adoption by industry is all that matters. But that means we’ll always be importing innovations, while we miss out on the jobs and export income we might have had from our own.

I believe Australia has never been in more need of entrepreneurship. Not only is the economy suffering at present from the decline of the mining boom and the demise of the auto industry, but we face considerable challenges, for example from the disruptive advance of robotics, which is forecast to make 40% of current jobs obsolete over the next decade.

We’ve always been resourceful and inventive, but we’ve lagged behind our peers in converting ideas and IP into innovative businesses. We’ve been the lucky country and had a run at becoming the clever country. Now it’s time to become the innovative island.

Entrepreneurship in its broadest sense means not only creating startup businesses, but developing innovative products and services for customers in every field, from established businesses to social endeavours. And I believe it’s particularly needed to make the most of one of our natural resources – the brilliant scientists in our Medical Research Institutes and leading Universities. We’ve had world-class fundamental medical research for decades, but with a few notable exceptions, such as the Cochlear bionic ear, we haven’t turned our discoveries into global businesses.

So can we develop a generation of entrepreneurs to do this over the next decade? Some people say entrepreneurship is either inborn or it’s not, and no amount of education can change that. I believe it’s true that you can’t train someone to have the burning desire, the passion, the happy willingness to get up at 2am to continue working on an idea you can’t get out of your mind and the resilience to push through every barrier in the way of getting an innovation to the market. But if you find scientists or technologists who already have these characteristics, can you teach them a set of skills and knowledge that increases and accelerates their chance of success?

Three years ago the Victorian government funded a program called Molecules to Medicine as a pilot to test the hypothesis that training could make a difference in this area. The 12 month program was designed for biomedical postdoctoral early-to-mid career scientists to provide practical training in the translation and commercialisation of their research.

Post docs in leading research organisations have to be intellectually gifted to be there and in the early stages of their career they need to focus on a narrow field of research to become world experts in one area and push forward the boundaries of knowledge to publish in that area. However, as they progress and succeed, if they make discoveries with commercial potential, they need to acquire a whole new range of skills. These include filing patent claims, assessing the financial value of their work, finding new funding sources and pitching for it, securing industry partners and understanding their needs, understanding negotiation and contracts, the regulatory pathway, the market for new drugs, devices and diagnostics and how to lead large multidisciplinary teams. And yet they’ve had no training for these tasks.

Molecules to Medicine consisted of 12 months training in all the facets of medicine development, with a particular focus on engaging with industry, since academic research often stalls in what’s known as the ‘valley of death’ before clinical trials, unless some collaboration with industry can be achieved. Over the 12 months the interns came together for a series of 20 expert seminars, workshops and team exercises and returned to their home institutions for on-the-job training and mentoring from their Business Development Managers. Over 40 expert speakers kindly gave their time to contribute to the program.

At the end of the 3 years, 109 interns from 16 different Medical Research Institutions and Universities graduated with a Certificate of Completion from M2M co-signed by their own institutes. The interns improved their skills and knowledge in 7 key areas as assessed by themselves and their BDMs.

Tangible results attributed to M2M included nearly $10m in new funds raised from non-traditional sources, 49 collaborations with industry and 25 licences signed to commercialise their research. In addition, 3 new companies were spun out with significant input from graduates.

BDMs considered that the interns got up to speed more rapidly than colleagues who had not done the course, in matters of translation and commercialisation. Many interns passed on their knowledge to other scientists in their labs, or working groups, and began a cultural shift informed by an understanding of clinical and real world problems. A significant proportion of interns said that what they had learnt has already had an impact on their colleagues and the broader community, and nearly all said they believed it would in time.

The interns also benefited from a better appreciation of a broader set of career options, though the majority hope to stay in research. Several interns who participated in all or part of the program have gone on to BDM type roles. The course graduates have continued to network with each other and several are active in various aspects of the StartUp community in the Health Tech area.

Dr Sara Prickett said, “At the start of 2015, I became Project Manager of this start-up (Aravax, developing a vaccine for peanut allergy) and have since been extensively involved in project planning and oversight of all aspects of the project. The extent of my involvement, my awareness of the requirements and processes, and my contribution to the accomplishments the project has made to date have all been possible due to the extra training, insight and guidance I received from M2M. In some cases, I learned entirely new things that I have been able to incorporate into the progression of this project.”

Dr Kate Lomas said, “As part of the Molecules to Medicine program, one of the team exercises was to propose an idea for a Cooperative Research Centre. We chose to set up an Indigenous Health CRC that would include a preventative health program around empowerment, via a community driven agricultural business, growing and harvesting arid tolerant bush tomatoes using culturally relevant methods, to provide a substantial business for the community. The goal was to move community members off welfare and into jobs, providing economic independence, self-sustainability and reduce health related issues. As a result of feedback from the CRC association and CSIRO management present at the presentations, we turned the fictitious CRC idea into a workable project, which now spans across three CSIRO flagships and has a number of CSIRO staff involved. We’ve received an Indigenous Advancement Strategy grant and over the next three years, this project will now be undertaken in collaboration with the Tjuwanpa Women Rangers Group based at the Tjuwanpa Resource Centre, Ntaria (Hermannsburg) and will focus on developing an agribusiness for the community. These outcomes are directly credited to the Molecules to Medicine program, which provided a platform of skill development and collaboration that lead to the formation of the idea and project.

So we have shown that entrepreneurial skills can be taught and they do make a difference to those with the natural drive and passion to take their ideas and change the world.

There’s a groundswell of interest and excitement around innovation and entrepreneurship at present that’s encouraging to see. There are several developing Accelerator programs providing seed funding and mentoring. Three Venture Capital companies have each been able to raise $200m funds in just the last few months. Crowdfunding has opened a new avenue for raising funds from the public. The next generation of scientists, engineers and IT tech founders are smart, committed and want to make things happen. New government federal and state innovation policies are expected soon that may offer more incentives to Angels and Super Funds to back early stage ventures. I hope they will be of sufficient scale and that the need for entrepreneurial training will not be overlooked.

As William Shakespeare put it, “ There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.“ Let us all work to catch that tide, while it’s here.

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